I’m a mindfulness meditation novice. It’s strange to admit that I’ve been living full time with a brain for more than 30 years, and even used it to get a PhD, yet have only just begun to read the manual. My practice is pretty modest — at least five times every week (weekends optional), watching my breath for at least 20 minutes a pop, sitting Burmese style since my hips can’t manage a half lotus for long. It’s been about two months.
Like I said, absolute beginner stuff here. I’m still working out kinks, and still reminding myself that kinks are normal, because I’m human and think with a lump of meat. And part of the deal of thinking with meat is that you take the bad with the good.
I encounter these things a lot when I sit. Breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in, and breathing out, I remember the time I called out Dan Dennett on a mean thing he said about Jerry Fodor in 2009.
It goes on like this, trying to stay with the breath even though my brain wants to revisit fights I’ve had, rehearse fights I might have, stuff my mouth with sugary scones, and so on. A lot of Buddhists call this the “monkey mind,” the side of our minds that won’t sit still. The monkey mind is active and impulsive. It chases down every shiny thing in its path, whether that’s an idea or a craving or a fear.
I get the analogy on an intellectual level, but not on an emotional level. Many Buddhists live in places where monkeys live close by, but I’ve never met a monkey or come close to one that wasn’t in a zoo. When it comes to the monkey mind, I can only connect with the monkey through documentaries or movies. So I get the analogy, or I get how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t fully understand it.
But I do understand my dog, Gemini.
Gemini goes for walks twice a day. She lives to smell everything in her path, even though she doesn’t seem to be very good at finding treats with her nose, poor dear. And she loves to find patches of grass to roll in. But like many dogs, her leash makes her anxious, so when she sees another dog, all her focus goes there. Everything else — like me or her mom — might as well not exist while the other dog walks by, and she spins, lunges, barks, growls. Dog trainers call this “leash reactivity,” and it’s one of the most common reasons dog owners look for trainers.
Is Gemmy a…bad dog? I don’t think so. I don’t know exactly how she feels, and if Gemini could speak English, she probably couldn’t explain how she feels either. But what I glean from her behavior is something like: lemmeathimlemmeathimlemmeathim. Only one thing matters at that point, and that’s getting to the other dog.
It takes a lot of effort to draw her attention away. You can’t simply say, “Gemini, come along,” because verbal cues can’t stand up to the appearance of another dog. What’s more interesting to a dog: the Golden Retriever across the street, or the same old mouth noises you hear all the time? Forget it.
But it is possible to draw her attention away, with training and high value treats. (In Gemini’s case, it’s freeze-dried beef livers. Yum!) What works depends on her mood. Sometimes it’s enough to have her sit while the other dog goes by, while other times she needs to focus on something more active, like a trail of treats. And none of it worked the first time. It has taken a lot of effort for her to learn to plop her butt down and maintain eye contact while there are other very rude dogs around.
It will take more time for Gemini to overcome her reactivity so completely that she totally ignores stranger dogs without our help, but she’s made enough progress to show that it’s possible to make the prospect of barking and lunging less tantalizing, to turn down the volume and adrenaline on seeing new canines.
When I try to slow down and watch my breath, I don’t find a monkey mind. I find my inner Gemmy. My inner Gemmy wants nothing more than to spin and bark at any painful memory or negative self-talk. My inner reactive dog, my Gemmy brain, sees a self-serving fantasy and wants to sink its teeth in and really indulge. And just like the real Gemini, my inner Gemini doesn’t listen to reason. Reason just isn’t as exciting as, say, a deep craving for a pint of ice cream.
But also like the real Gemini, even though my inner Gemmy really wants to act out, she can be trained. There are tricks to soothing her, and just like with training a real dog, the work actually starts with yourself, and recognizing what’s happening for what it really is. My dog isn’t trying to embarrass me and probably isn’t even trying to attack. She probably doesn’t know what’s going on with herself. She really and truly can’t even. There’s something here very enticing to her doggy brain, and past encounters have conditioned her to make this response. That’s all it is, and tensing up or getting mad at the dog won’t magically undo it. It all starts with acceptance.
Sometimes I have a song stuck in my head, or a very interesting idea, and my inner Gemini really wants to grab on. It’s so strong that I really just become my inner Gemini. But the more I’ve learned to come back to my breath, the more I’ve learned patience with my reactive dog brain. My reactive dog brain has habits conditioned by past experiences. Some of those habits are benign, some are frankly charming (hello, philosophy-based inner monologues), and some really hurt. But that’s all they are, just habits kicking in, clouds passing by. By coming back to my breath, I realize that, instead of frothing at the mouth, I can watch the dog at the end of the leash with its hackles up, and say, “That’s a dog with her hackles up.”
Learning to sit down and watch my breath has been great for many reasons, but especially because I realize now that I’ve been walking my inner Gemini my entire life, and I didn’t even know it. Sometimes my inner Gemini has been walking me and I didn’t know it. And that can be awful, to veg out and stew in bad feelings and react to everything going on inside and out. I know how upset Gemini gets the longer she reacts; all those habits keep reinforcing themselves. So what happens to me when I’m frowning at my phone for hours on end? My inner Gemini is reacting for hours.
The prospects for the real-world Gemini to get over her reactivity are pretty good, in my opinion. I doubt my inner Gemini will ever stop being reactive. But that’s okay, as long as I remember, again and again, that the leash is in my hands.